Film Review: Looper


Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon, directed by Rian Johnson.

Okay, I’m a bit of a sci-fi nerd and a movie fan. That said, I usually find time travel based stories to be simplistic and / or gimmicky. Looking at Looper, I was on the fence; a dual lead film, two good actors (one rising star, one… more of a skilled entertainer than master thespian) and a relatively new director with a small (but good) body of work. Add to that mix, $30million budget, 1.5x the budget of The Brothers Bloom (Johnson’s previous film) and much higher than any of the TV episodes he directed since that film’s release. I tense up when I see wads of cash handed over to a ‘newer’ director, as it leads to self indulgent film making, sometimes, even in seasoned directors.J. Gordon-Levitt

Add to this trepidation the big ‘gimmick’ of the film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis will be playing the same character, just at different ages, who actually meet thank to the main ‘gimmick’ of time travel – and the much touted prosthetics that JG-L would be wearing. Seeing some of the early poster art, my immediate thought was that he looked more like a young Sean Connery than a young Bruce Willis – this could be really bad. If the technology existed for Eddie Murphy to play 8 characters who interact with each other in The Klumps in 2000, couldn’t they have casted a single actor to play both roles? Surely they could find an actor that could play young and old – Matt Smith’s Doctor Who does so on television without tons of makeup, sometimes in the same monologue cutting from youthful enthusiasm to the weight of age. Maybe they were afraid of the logistics, even in the age of CGI, of getting the shots with eye lines and emotive context, that the constant reshoots necessary to secure a scene with one actor playing two roles would inflate the budget even further.

More likely, Gordon-Levitt is still too new a name to carry a film with this budget, so he needed to be paired with an established (bankable) property, Willis. Willis’ everyman hero, established so well in the Die Hard franchise (great films) was easy to identify with, like Harrison Ford’s Han Solo; just more bad ass, like we all wish we could be. Variations on this archetype has cemented Willis as the star he is, evolving as he aged, Fifth Element, 16 Blocks, Red. In Expendables, he seemed like the only actor who got it that he was to parody himself. But does Willis have the emotional range to recapture that youthful swagger needed by the young hitman, could he convincingly pull it off? His Planet Terror character definitely had layers, including a smoldering menace. Maybe he could have, maybe I’m only saying that after seeing the dynamic job he did in Looper. This film is more like a passing of the torch to the next generation of thinking everyman action stars, which seems to be a niche JGL is fitting into nicely (Inception).

But a friend won a free pass, so I could see it with no risk. The movie tag line seemed less than inspired:

“In 2072, when the mob wants to get rid of someone, the target is sent 30 years into the past, where a hired gun awaits.”

Sigh, gangsters with time travel. But the cast is solid. Shortly into the film, it’s obvious – care was taken with this production. The set design is solid. The dystopian world, the looper contract, the various mob roles are all explained with very little exposition, most can actually be gleaned in the interactions and the world that’s shown. From the little things, such as currency, old vehicles that have been retrofitted for electric power, to the masses of homeless, people scrounging and thieving to survive living in old office towers and sewers contrasted by the high life of a looper, or a person with connections, the sparkling skyline, access to pleasures and above the law it is obvious that this story is part of a much richer and fuller world. As the film rolled, it became easier and easier to immerse myself in the story. The prosthetics on JGL were still noticeable, but it was his impression of a young BW that shone through.

My recommendation is that you go see this film

Minor SPOILERS may follow

Little things really helped flesh out the world. The Economic disparity, the references to the hobo wars, that so few vehicles were new (mainly converted to run on solar power), reference to the TK gene, even drug use being most fashionable via eye drops all paint a plausible world, futuristic but still with ties to our world.  Such dedication to world building made me wish Rian Johnson had been at the helm of In Time, a film that suffered from an incohesive world view.

The looper contract, and the criminal organization it spawned (in the now, run by Jeff Daniels) appears simple but works on many levels. The looper contract itself “doesn’t attract many forward thinking individual”. “Loopers are well paid, they lead a good life…” and they do, up until 30 years after their retirement. Loopers kill people sent back in time, because disposing of a body in the future is now incredibly difficult. So they send them back, to the time of the movie, so they can be killed and disposed of. Loopers are contracted to do this until the person they kill are their future self, closing the ‘loop’, hence the job title looper. Then they are then retired to live life on their savings for 30 years at which point they are captured and sent back to be killed. Hence not “forward thinking”. Loopers are provided with a weapon, a single shot blunderbuss, with a range of 15 yards, impossible to miss at short range, impossible to hit beyond 15 strides. Loopers also have to check this weapon when they visit the ‘office’. Policing the loopers were the gats, goons with a slow firing pistol (of the ones shown in the movie, some seemed single shot, some were revolvers). The gats’ guns have a longer range and more accuracy than a blunderbuss but are still archaic by today’s weapon standards. Why did the organization use such obviously flawed and outdated weapons? The film does go to show that the ‘organization’ does have access to better quality weapons (P90s were being used at one point), but in a way it acts a policing of the organizations underlings. The loopers, such as Joe (played by JGL / BW) are not really being hired for their intelligence; they are not ‘forward thinkers’. They are selected for their lose morals, hunger for a better life and a willingness to sell out their future for a better today. Such people may be prone to voice displeasure at management with an ill advised takeover attempt, attempts made difficult with the limitations of the tools available to them. Same goes for gats, who seem to chafe at the good life that loopers lead, but lord their ability to police the loopers over them.

Most of the problems in the film seem to come from the fact that Joe was the youngest looper ever recruited, and proved to be much more intelligent than most of his peers. Something realized by Abe (Jeff Daniels), but not immediately recognized as dangerous.

Major SPOILERS alert

The early example of Seth (played by Paul Dano)went to demonstrate not only the danger of not closing your loop, but also the nature of time travel. Choices made affect the future, but only when they’re made, so when future Seth made the choice to sing a childhood song that made now Seth pause, and prevent killing him, all the bad things that followed did not immediately catch up with future Seth, they only happened once the actions were taken by and upon now Seth. If future Seth hadn’t been removed from his timeline, the actions taken against young Seth would have appeared instantaneous to him, but since the actions taken were after he travelled to the now, their affects only appeared as they were done to young Seth, to gruesome effect. Bruce Willis’ Joe described it as foggily remembering the actions of now Joe (JGL) but only as, or after, now Joe had done them. He maintained many of his memories, even after he had changed the past (as shown in the fast forward dreamlike sequence of his life after he had ‘originally’ killed himself). One thing to note, and something I’m not clear on (and a reason to see the film again), the woman future Joe loved and married, the woman who managed to get him of ‘drops’ (Joe’s drug of choice) face morphed in Joe’s memory into a blend of the original (Qing Xu) and Sara’s (Emily Blunt) after Sara took the time to ease now Joe’s withdrawal, winning his affection. It is after this scene that old Joe is very protective of his picture of his dead / future wife, and it’s not seen on screen again, potentially, because it’s been changed.

In marketing the film, they glossed over, almost failed to mention the TK element in the film. This greatly reduced my (as a film goer) expectation of its importance. I was very happy to see this, as too many films (even TV shows) give away too much information in the trailers that make it impossible to not figure out the major plot points – the tendency to ‘show all the good parts’. They could’ve even cut a trailer showing the film as a sort of ‘reverse terminator’ – a looper sent back to the past to prevent the takeover of the mob by a blood thirsty, brutal maniac known simply as “The Rainmaker”. If I was to continue this list of ‘what they did right’ – this review would be even longer. I will switch gears to little things that could have been done better. Much was done to show that vehicles had been converted to run on solar power, and electricity in general BUT in several scenes as these trucks rumbled past, they rumbled with the sound of a combustion engine. Bruce Willis’ delay in getting into the time machine (to face his death) somehow caused a delay in his exiting – wouldn’t the time machine be set for a certain time and place? If bodies were so hard to get rid of in the future, how come Bruce Willis, a hit man again, in the future, wasn’t in jail? What was done with his wife’s body to prevent authorities looking for her? And for that matter, why risk sending live bodies back at all? Why not kill someone then zap them back in time to a volcano, to dispose of the body?

Most of these questions are minor at the least, and I’m sure they could be relatively explained in a satisfactory manner with a greater fleshing out of the world – which isn’t necessarily needed. All it boils down to is this: Rian Johnson’s directorial style seems like a blend of Martin Scorsese and Terry Gilliam. Great characters and great set pieces lead to a great escapist movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance (almost impersonation) of a young Bruce Willis, overcame the limits imposed on him by the prosthetics.

An interesting subtext to the movie is consequence, most time travel movies deal with that (Butterfly Effect), but one obvious question comes up – what is the difference between young Joe and old Joe that would make it reasonable to old Joe to kill a child. For young Joe, it’s repugnant. For old Joe, it does seem unpleasant but something that he feels he has no choice but to do. It comes to that old theoretical question, if you were able to go back in time, would you go back and kill Hitler as a child? Theoretically, you’d be killing an innocent, would his future crimes justify the killing of that child?

Everything else being said, the performance put in by Pierce Gagnon as Cid was lynchpin in pulling the story together. As a child actor, his ability to convey both innocence and menace is amazing, and I’ll not take from Rian Johnson’s ability as a director by saying so. This child, introduced so innocently midway through the second act of the film becomes the line in the sand and the impetus to all that happens. Watching him at such a young age you can see the life choices as they’ll become laid out for him, and the influences on his future decision process that the other characters (will) play.

This film is a win, it’s a good bet you’ll enjoy it if you’re a scifi fan, or a good story fan, even as a romance (Blunt’s performance as an ex addict dealing with guilt and an extraordinary burden is very good) it’s a win. I think anyone wanting quick answers and simplistic plot may (and that’s just may) be disappointed in this film – and I, as one, am glad films are still being made for people who enjoy being challenged.





About Ash

Paul Ash is that special kind of person who sees the best in everyone, except himself. His self loathing comedy is peppered with rural charm and big city cynicism. This “muppet king of comedy” has been described as the “encyclopaedia of funny” and has an over ten year relationship with the Festival Just For Laughs, the world’s largest stand-up comedy fest.